A Historic Achievement

Wishek educator reflects on winning state History Teacher of the Year award

By Tom Gerhardt, NDU Communications

If you’ve ever had a triple-shot espresso on an empty stomach, you have experienced the same shot of energy that Wishek Public School history teacher, and the 2017 North Dakota History Teacher of the Year, Sarah Crossingham delivers to her students each day.

Sarah Crossingham, of Wishek, was recently named as the 2017 North Dakota History Teacher of the Year.

“I don’t know if you can bottle up what she has,” said Wishek High School Principal Yvonne Engelhart, who nominated Crossingham for the honor. “And the enthusiasm, it’s amazing! I am so proud of Sarah and so honored that we have her at our school. She does amazing things.”

Crossingham is a proud member her education local, the Wishek Education Association, and of North Dakota United. We sat down with Crossingham recently in Wishek, and talk to her about winning this prestigious award, which is given out annually by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and to discuss what motivates her as an educator in her community, and as a public employee and working professional.

Crossingham’s passion for teaching is evident, and she makes an effort each day to convey that enthusiasm to her students. “If I’m excited, I’m hoping that will make them excited about history so that’s how I try to teach. My big joke with my world history classes is, ‘This is my favorite unit to teach! This is my favorite unit!’ Finally one of my students said, ‘Every unit is your favorite unit!’ And I say, ‘No, this one’s my favorite, I promise!’”

The surprise news of the honor came via email while she was in Chicago for a wedding. Crossingham immediately sent a text to Engelhart, telling her she’d won. “I was jumping out of my skin!” Engelhart said. “I was so excited for her because, about a year ago, I wanted to nominate her but she hadn’t been teaching long enough (you have to have been teaching three years) and then this year came around and I said, I’m nominating you!”

Wishek Principal Yvonne Engelhart, left, and Sarah Crossingham stand together for a picture in the halls of WIshek High School.

Kevin Richland, a high school history teacher from Big Sky High School in Missoula, Mont., is the person Crossingham says inspired her to become a history teacher. She says she incorporates many of the things he did in his classroom into her classroom. And she also gives credit to former Dickinson State University professor Rebecca Pitkin for solidifying her choice of choosing a teaching career. “She was one of the best mentors I ever had. Even to this day, I think, ‘What would Rebecca Pitkin do in my classroom?’ So I try to model my teaching after her,” Crossingham said.

Pitkin, now director of the Education and Standards Practices Board in North Dakota, says she remembers Crossingham’s enthusiasm. “When she student-taught, she would stop by and tell me about her day and she would go on and on about how much she loved it. The individual she pre-service taught with said she was one of the best he had ever seen; she was very, very creative and engaged students in their learning!”

Crossingham says her goal is to make history come to life and to teach her students why it’s important to learn history. “I love to do a lot of collaborative work, I love to do a lot of projects — so project-based learning — to me sitting and just listening to a lecture or doing worksheets or doing the same thing over and over again kind of gets boring, so I like to do fun things. I like to do mock trials. I like to do different group presentations.”

One of her most memorable lessons involved our recent presidential election.

“We had three Donald Trumps and three Hillary Clintons, and we hosted debates for the whole school to see and did a whole mock election for the entire school. So it’s fun for me to get the kids excited about education and to get the kids excited about social studies,” Crossingham said.

Wishek students posed as presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for debates in front of the school this past election season, as part of Sarah Crossingham’s social studies class.

Sarah and her fiancé made the decision to move to Wishek nearly five years ago. As a graduate of Dickinson State University, she was looking for her first teaching job, and the couple knew nothing about Wishek. “We had to Google it on the map. He (her fiancé) said it’s an hour and a half away from Bismarck in the middle of nowhere!” Sarah’s closest family was 12 hours away in her hometown of Missoula. However, the nervousness of that first day teaching in a new school has quickly progressed to strong friendships in a welcoming community and a new sense of family.

“It is different teaching in a smaller school. In a larger school, you can’t make those connections, and what’s really nice about teaching in a rural school is you have them from seventh grade through 12th grade. I know what they learned in seventh grade and what they’re going to be exposed to when they’re 12th graders.”

Family back home in Montana quickly became a fan of Wishek, especially the sausage. “What’s funny is my dad makes me pack a cooler every time I come home! He gives me the order: Let’s do $100 this time; let’s do fry sausage, bologna. I always bring some back!”

Sarah Crossingham, the 2017 N.D. History Teacher of the Year, says that her membership in North Dakota United has been invaluable to her in networking with educators from around the region.

North Dakota United has also played an important role in Crossingham’s career. She says she knew from the moment local WEA President Karen Christensen talked to her, NDU was something she wanted to join. “I love the community sense of it,” she said. “If you’re having a tough day, it’s really nice to be able to go talk to another union member and just vent to them or ask about what they are doing in their classroom. You meet so many people around the area, too. I joined TeachForward, and I’ve met a lot of colleagues from Linton. It’s about the relationships you build with other teachers. And even though we are still young, it’s nice to know everyone goes through the same thing you’re going through.”

As an NDU member, Crossingham helped negotiate their contract with the district this year and called the first-time experience humbling and eye-opening. “We were able to get a maternity clause added to our contracts, so to me, that was amazing. I’m a teacher, but I was able to influence our entire contract. So that was very exciting for me to be able to do that.”

The less than five-year journey from new teacher to 2017 North Dakota History Teacher of the Year has been filled with rewards, challenges and exciting opportunities. Sarah says that even on the occasional tough day, she keeps her focus on the students. “You are here for them. How are you making their lives better? How are you teaching them, and how are you making them better people? That’s what I focus on.”

And the young teacher who once had to find Wishek on the map now calls the school and the community her home.

“It’s really humbling now when I’m going around Wishek and I hear congratulations, what an amazing award, we are so proud of you,” Crossingham said. “That makes me happy to be a part of this community and this school system. It’s everything, it’s my school, it’s my colleagues, it’s my community and the students that make me the teacher that I am.”

Crossingham is now a finalist for the National History Teacher of the Year award, which will be presented by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner at a ceremony in New York City on Nov. 8, 2017.